Two car makers in India seem to be having some issues – one, major issues, while the other, a relatively minor problem.

First, Tata Nano.

nano-flamesThat dramatic photograph of a brand new Nano going up in flames is…well, dramatic indeed! I have only seen race cars go up in flames like that, till now!

Today’s Times of India reports that the former-owner of the now-sautéed vehicle, Satish Sawant, has been given compensation of Rs. 2.25 lakhs from Concorde Motors, but is going to sue Tata Motors for Rs. 15 lakhs. A Tata Motors spokesperson is quoted towards the end, “Tata Motors had requested Sawant to accept a new Nano or take refund of the money paid for the Nano that he had bought. He decided to take the refund. The company does not have anything else to say“.

Nothing else to say? Wow!

Ok, that was print media – people cannot talk back to their newspaper or television screens. What about social media?

Let us take some stock about people’s reaction in Tata’s owned media properties online.

There is an official ‘Tata Nano Community’ on Orkut. Sorry, it is ‘The Tata Nano Community‘ – notice the ‘The’! It has 11,766 members as of today. One of the threads, started on March 22, ‘Is Nano really safe‘, has 52 comments as of now. It has members cross-posting press information about the Nano bursting into flames and there are a lot of worried queries.

After the first 13 worried queries, Tata Nano moderator posts a link, “Here’s a message from Tata Motors. A Message from Mr. Nitin Seth (Head Car Product Group) Tata Motors – link” – the link was both tweeted and posted on the Orkut page. It has about 200+ hits so far.

You’d expect a helpful holding statement about the incident, right? Beep…wrong answer. Take a look at the link! It says, among other things, “It gives me great pleasure to write to you. Thank you for your overwhelming support to Tata Motors“…”Owners and enthusiasts have been driving their Nanos on cross-country drives lapping up thousands of kilometers in extreme conditions from high altitude and snow to hot, dusty deserts“…”We hope the Nano brings many years of happiness and joy to all of you“.

Not even a whisper about the incident. Hmm, interesting!

And then, there is no other official statement from the moderator on this issue, even as mainstream media is going ga-ga over it.

On Facebook, Tata owns a group and a fan page. The group has 358 members while the fan page has 8,224 fans. The group is possibly moderated – so nothing on the fire incident.

The fan page has people asking questions, but the official mod seems to be living in an Utopian world where Nanos do not catch fire.

There are some interesting comments worth observing here – a fan, Suchendu Subudhi, has all of 20 friends and is posting some rather interesting updates.

There are 25000 Tata Nanos on the road. Only 4 have caught fire without any physical injury to human beings. Please recall all Tata nano cars before anyone is injured or killed due to fire. i dont want my car to be the 5th one to catch fire.

Incidents of race cars burning is common. Does that mean they stop the car rally / race?

Another fan, Nicky Shroff, posts, “Hey guys did you know fires are really common with super cars. Here’s one story I read of a Lamborghini catching fire“!

There is also a question of how Tata Motors is using social media, by Rajesh Soundararajan: “Clerarly, you guys have not got what it means to be in Socia Media. I do not have problem with the car or The Tatas. I have an issue how the online guys are using Social Media for one-way communication. Social Media is a two way conversation…

Another one: “Will Tatas be recalling the Nanos to fix the electric circuit problem, which has resulted in 4 cars already going up in flames???

Then there is the voice of reason: “Well, I think there could be so many reasons for this incident, need to research but certainly cannot totally blame TATA or its NANO for this…

Any official response to the 8,000+ fans who bothered to become fans? Not yet.

The second issue concerns Skoda India.

Now, I’ve heard from many people that Skoda India’s service costs are high and that it is plain terrible – but those are just random comments from friends and peers. Here’s a local celebrity blogging and tweeting about it.

The celebrity is playback singer, dubbing artist, entrepreneur (she owns a translation service firm) and TV host, Chinmayi Sripada. For the northerners, she is the one who sung Tere bina, from Guru – she has sung a lot more songs down south across languages. She’s a fantastic singer and I really admire her for being a multi-faceted personality.

She tweeted last week,

I love my Skoda but Gurudev Motors in Chennai would have to be the worst fleecers as long as service and maintenance is concerned.” (link)…and…”If you are in Chennai and if you want to buy the Skoda, Please Dont. Save yourself the headache. Gurudev Motors are the only dealers here…” (link).

And then, she also blogged about it, “Please don’t buy a Skoda“, on April 11th. Amongst other things, she says,

When I tweeted about it yesterday, I found out that the Skoda dealers all over India and specifically in Mumbai are equally terrible. Skoda invited us for a “Free Checkup” and then presented a bill that run up to a few ten thousands, for a perfectly fine car. I have loved the Skoda cars because some of my friends and acquaintances have owned it and quite happily too. The main reason I chose it was for the mileage. For some reason their spares are outrageously expensive and when I asked someone why, this is a racket. I hear that the dealers do not make much of a commission on the sales of cars and the companies tell them to make their buck in the service. maintenance and of course the spares. And hence all the fictitious ‘issues’ that they will conjure out of thin air and make you wonder what is happening. But then I am not the first one who has begun complaining and loudly…

Skoda India has a Facebook page with 768 fans. One of the fans, Bharat Iyer, after posting a glowing review in another site, is referring to some issues on the vehicle, which has got some angry support from other fans. Again – dealer problem!

I quote Bharat verbatim here, “hey a gr8 fan of urs so i bought myself a laura petrol :)..the car had gearbox issues and der ws slight dentin paintin wrk to be don so i gav the car in the wrk shop in delhi..1st they manged to hit my car and graised the whole rear drivers side door wen i had gone to c d car..den they also hit the rear drivers… fender..its been 3weeks n i ws supposed to gt my cars within 1week..den i ws to gt it 2dy but d dealr said dat the clutch parts hed ordered fr my car hadnt come n instead a diesels had come..hes sayin itl tak 3 more days..wat is goin on wid ur service??am plannin to tak it up also wid d company..i ws abt to buy a yeti and a superb also and had advised a few frnds also to buy the superb but nw i guess ill hv to rethink if dis is hw its goin to go..ive wnted to buy only skoda cars but aftr ownin my 1st,im nt v pleased abt it..u r loosin one of ur biggst fans,..

And the angry support he gets, “shit man bharat..i was going for the superb only on your advise..this is nonsense whats going on with skoda? Are they crazy with selection of their dealers? The dealers are spoiling a wonderful product

And one more! “its no suprise… WECLOME TO SKODA(SERVICE NOT THE CARS)!! its the same all over the country.. The sko0da logistics is very bad as the egr valve took more than 3 months and the Flywheel Took more than a month….Do u guys find any difference in quality between the 1st few batches of cars and the ones around now?? (The cbu’s and the localised dash, indicator, feel of switches)…The bang dealer even tried swapping parts from one car to the other!!

Taking stock and being fair

First things first, hats off to both brands for not moderating these severely negative comments. That is a huge sign that these are relatively mature brands. It is indeed a big step forward. Also, I completely buy the point that a few people could complain and many people will have problems – both Nano and Skoda’s cars are just machines. Machines go wrong many times and there’s nothing one can do about that.

And people complain about such things on assorted places online.

But there is a difference here – they are complaining on owned media properties that both brands have painstakingly put together online. Isn’t that Orkut or Facebook community equivalent to getting people into a room, to share good/great news about the brand? Those people stay there – just not all the time, but come back to the room when it is convenient for them.

So, the question is, should Tata Motors and Skoda India try to instill confidence amongst those who took the effort to join their owned media properties online?

Should they also share updates with them on bad news, as much as good news?

Or, should all such communication still be done via mainstream media and then random fans pick those, add their own assumption and cross-post them here to the brands’ consternation?

I do understand that communicating such tough messages need time, internal buy-in and tact language so as to not topple the entire apple cart. But, could a holding statement be added at least to temporarily assuage members/fans so that they don’t go berserk dissing the brand online?

Tata Nano’s holding statement is anything but one – it itself seems to be holding for its own life.

Skoda India has been quite active online recently, as I noticed on Twitter. They are indeed doing a good job by seeking out people who tweet about their cars and engage with them proactively. Have they noticed Chinmayi’s tweets and now, her blog post? Do they know the kind of influence she wields in Chennai/Tamil Nadu? Agreed – she’s not a national celebrity worth pandering to, but she is known and respected at least in one metro. And thankfully, she has good things to say about the vehicle per se – unlike those Facebook comments – her problem seems to be with the lone Chennai dealer. Many others are also complaining about Skoda India’s dealers.

Would the otherwise-responsive-on-twitter Skoda India respond to these comments that could possibly impact its brand image?